John Rhode and Miles Burton | Series Detectives | Short Stories | Ask a Policeman
By Miles Burton: The Secret of High Eldersham and The Shadow on the Cliff | The Milk-Churn Murder / The Clue of the Silver Brush | Death in the Tunnel | Death Leaves No Card | Death in a Duffle Coat
By John Rhode: The Davidson Case / Murder at Bratton Grange | Pinehurst / Dr. Priestley Investigates | Dead Men at the Folly | The Motor Rally Mystery / Dr. Priestley Lays a Trap | The Claverton Mystery / The Claverton Affair | Poison for One | Death in the Hop Fields / The Harvest Murder | They Watched by Night / Signal For Death | Night Exercise / Dead of the Night | Death Invades the Meeting | Vegetable Duck / Too Many Suspects | Death in Harley Street | The Secret Meeting
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Death in the Hop Fields / The Harvest Murder (1937) (Chapters 1 first part, 3, 5 first part, 7-9, 17) (available on-line at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015063959442)
Night Exercise / Dead of the Night (1942) (Chapters 1 -4, end of Chapter 5, Chapter 9)
The Shadow on the Cliff (1944)
Death in a Duffle Coat (1956) (Chapters 1-4, end of 16)
Dr. Lancelot Priestley stories
What is best in Street's writing? My favorites so far fall into two groups:
Dr. Priestley somewhat resembles Jacques Futrelle's earlier sleuth the Thinking Machine. Both are elderly scientists of enormous brain power and reasoning gifts. Both are dry, somewhat snappish men, whose sometimes caustic manner conceals a kind heart. Both frequently send the young men who assist them out on errands and leg work: the Thinking Machine is assisted by young newspaperman Hutchinson Hatch, while Dr. Priestley has his secretary and son-in-law Harold Merefield to help him. Both Hatch and Merefield are nice, friendly young men, who are often baffled about the point of the puzzling errands on which the Thinking Machine or Dr. Priestley send them, but who execute their tasks faithfully.
Dr. Priestley's character is that of a snappish old grandfather, the sort of character fantasy writer E. Nesbit burlesqued as the Psammead in Five Children and It (one of my favorite titles).
By contrast, I didn't like "The Vanishing Diamond", the highly touted novel Death in Harley Street (1946), or the Rhode - John Dickson Carr collaboration, Drop To His Death (1939). These tales are in no way offensive, but they lack inspiration.
It is deliberately absent a solution: Rhode left that to his Detection Club colleagues, 5 of whom provided their own solutions to the case. Anthony Berkeley's is the best of these: it has some logical analysis, as well as a funny spoof of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.
The Shadow on the Cliff has a good Background of English country life. It focuses not on the country homes of the rich, but a more working to middle class environment: farms, country inns, fishermen, and the countryside itself. Rhode liked stories set in small villages. He also had a fondness for settings of pubs, typically as places where dirty work was done in small communities. Rhode liked hired hands as characters. These include assistant innkeepers, farmhands, and factotums on country estates. Such people take part in a network of relationships in his villages. They also tend to be ignored by other Golden Age writers, so they gave Rhode something original to write about. Rhode likes to suspect higher ups: in Ask a Policeman, these are at the highest strata of English society; in Cliff and Eldersham, they are the local authority figures and rich people. There is a distinct strand of anti-authoritarianism in his personality. Rhode's characters get around by a great variety of transportation; unlike other realist school writers, he liked old fashioned kinds like horses and buggies, as well as wheelbarrows and dollies. Rhode likes scenes in church graveyards. People often work at night in Rhode: Gruber in his workshop in Cliff, the farmers in Eldersham, the many pub keepers in his books, the soldiers in Night Exercise. Although they often stay up all night detecting, Rhode's characters crave sleep more than anything. Rhode also liked nocturnal settings. He was fascinated by lamps of all kinds, flashlights, the moon, and any other source of illumination. He is very good at describing both moonlight and fog.
In his stories the detective often seems to stay in the same room previously occupied by the murder victim, an odd approach not found in many other modern writers, even sleeping in the murder victim's bed. In his first novel, The Paddington Mystery (1925), the hero actually discovers the corpse in his own bed and bedroom. One can find some precedents in Victorian writers: in Volume 1, Chapter 13 of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1861 - 1862), the detective hero who is tracking the fate of his missing, probably murdered best friend and roommate, falls asleep on his friend's bed, and has a memorable dream about the detective search he is on. Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk" (1878) in New Arabian Nights has a scene in which the protagonist finds a corpse in his bed. Stevenson read Braddon's book as a teenager, and it made a deep impression on him.
H.C. Bailey's characters like sensory stimulation, from strongly flavored foods, flowers, bright colors, and religious rituals. The many quotes in his stories, often from songs and hymns, also bombard his characters with music and poetry. I can identify with Bailey's characters - I share all the same enthusiasms listed above. By contrast, Rhode's like tobacco, alcohol, drugs, meat and the sea. This is much harder for me to identify with: I have never smoked, drinked, used drugs or gambled, and am definitely NOT an addictive personality, unlike many of the characters in Rhode.
Rhode's men love to disguise themselves. The disguises tend to cover his men's heads, and enlarge them; there is clearly something phallic about such imagery. While some men are emphasizing their phallic characters with their disguise, the witch cultists in Eldersham are uniformly dressed in women's clothes, both men and women, according to witch tradition. This gives an androgynous effect. All of the imagery in Rhode, whether substances or disguise, tends to a transformative quality. Characters wish to change their identity or nature, especially at night.
Rhode's heroines tend to be androgynous. Mavis in Eldersham is a Tomboy, drives speed boats, and is called more like a boy than a girl by one of the characters. The stepmother in Cliff manages the estate. The heroine of Cliff is a Naval Officer, a Wren, and wears a uniform. Her aunts are single women who run a farm, do much heavy labor, and dress in mannish work clothes. Feminists will like these gutsy characters, but feel sorry that they never get to do any amateur detection. By contrast, women who show traditional femininity are treated with contempt. These include the overdressed Mrs. Gruber in Cliff, and the society woman in Eldersham. These ladies don't work and are dependent on men. They are rotten to the core, in Rhode's world view.
Rhode liked to include elements of small time crime in his plots, especially dealing with the illegal sale of meat by farmers. This allows for plot complication, and also establishes a certain air of raffishness and disrespect for law among his villagers. Although the killing of farm animals is a constant in Rhode's world, it has sinister overtones. It is often linked to overtones of human sacrifice, for example, through parallelisms in the plot (Eldersham) or surrealistic imagery (Chapter 7 of Cliff). There are stone altars in both books with hints of human sacrifice: the pagan altar in the grove in Eldersham, and the natural rock Tregeagle's Bed in Cliff.
The Shadow on the Cliff shows Rhode's skill at plotting a fairly complex story, and having all the pieces dovetail properly. Rhodes contributed the superb opening section of Ask A Policeman, setting up the plot, the murder, the characters and their movements and motives. He didn't do any more, as befits the first chapter of a round robin. In some ways, Cliff is also all set-up material. It is pure mystery storytelling all the way through, and pretty well done. There is little "fair play" or great creativity with puzzle plot in the Agatha Christie sense. At the end of the story, we learn one of the characters did it, but there is no especially creative mystery puzzle idea in the solution. There is also little detection by any classical definition. The detectives learn things mainly by being told them by witnesses. Eventually, the detective gets a theory, which seems to be right. The solution continues the good storytelling of the rest of the novel by a well told account of the crime. It is most pleasant to read, but more as a piece of storytelling than for superb revelations. The passivity of the detective is mirrored by other characters. The author creates an excellent spunky heroine, and then nearly drops her from the novel's second half. The young hero of the story also almost disappears.
The Secret of High Eldersham (1931) is one of those mysteries that degenerates into a thriller. It starts out with a murder mystery, but by the end of the book all focus on this has been lost. This is too bad, because much of the book is well written. Chapters 12 - 16 form a separate section, largely dealing with the river and a mystery thereon. Rhode's detective Merrion eventually solves this mystery, uncovering an ingenious criminal scheme. Both the river navigation and the criminal scheme show the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts. Merrion's romance with Mavis, fears that her father is involved with the crime, and desire to protect her family from the authorities recall the amateur detective hero of Crofts' The Pit-Prop Syndicate. Similarly, the spies' communication scheme in The Shadow on the Cliff seems Croftsian.
Both Eldersham and Cliff start out in a pub, then move on to an outdoor setting in the English countryside. This setting, a river in Eldersham and a cliff in Cliff, is described with full Golden Age devotion to landscape architecture. Although no maps are included in the books, one could easily draw a map of both settings. Rhode loved landscape. The landscape literally speaks out at the end of The Shadow on the Cliff, in a way that reminds one of the modern theories of J. G. Ballard.
The opening of The Milk-Churn Murder seems to be set in Somerset county in the Southwest of England. It is just off the railway line from Taunton in Somerset, to Westbury just across the border in neighboring Wiltshire county.
Various railway workers are either witnesses to the crime, or help the police during the investigation. These workers are given bits of characterization, recalling the many worker-witnesses in Freeman Wills Crofts novels.
The railways and tunnel aspects can be considered a Background.
Signal lights, used on the railway in Death in the Tunnel, return (in a a different context) as a mystery subject in They Watched by Night.
The majority of how-done-its focus on a hard-to-discover murder method. Death in the Tunnel is different: its murder method is a straightforward shooting, understood immediately by the police. Instead what is hard-to explain in Death in the Tunnel are subsidiary aspects of the crime. SPOILERS. These subsidiary aspects are the mysterious signal lights, and how the killer entered and left the tunnel. These are finally figured out and explained by sleuth Desmond Merrion (Chapter 9).
BIG SPOILERS. The criminals' use of a breakdown-lorry with crane-and-tackle (what in the US is called a tow-truck with a crane or heist in back) recalls The Sea Mystery (1928) of Freeman Wills Crofts.
SPOILERS. A mystery is how the criminals found electric power in the tunnel (set forth in Chapter 7, solved in Chapter 9). This anticipates the mystery of how electric power was supplied in a farm where there was none in Death Leaves No Card. In both cases, the solution is sound and logical - but not overwhelmingly surprising or clever.
A plot flaw. SPOILERS. The victim keeps sending his family and co-workers out of town, so they won't be around to see anything when he does his mysterious business. Why didn't he just rent a hotel room in London, and do his business there? It would have been simpler and cheaper.
These opening chapters also show the police investigation of everyone's whereabouts before and during the murder, something Miles Burton does well here and elsewhere, considered as story telling.
The explanation of the impossible crime is sound enough, but none too creative. SPOILER. It's in the tradition of "A Chess Problem" in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1924) and The Man from Tibet (1938) by Clyde B. Clason. This was never the most elevated strand of impossible crime ideas to begin with, perhaps. Rhode adds one intriguing new feature: the fact that the crime takes place at a farmhouse without electricity, something that makes explaining the situation tougher.
The author does a good job of hiding some clues about the disappearance in the story. The disappearance also gives him a chance to investigate the local bus and its schedule.
Rhode included a mystery about a disappearing car in Dead Men at the Folly. SPOILER. The two puzzles are quite different. But both center around a question, "where did the disappearing person or object go?".
The duffle coats are worn by two rural women, while doing outdoor chores. These are women dressed in masculine clothes. The women are sympathetic: more of the author's favorable treatment of working women in androgynous costumes.
Like some other Rhode or Burton books, such as Pinehurst, Death in a Duffle Coat shows unexpectedly high levels of violence erupting in a remote area of peacetime rural Britain. The police do little to investigate, waiting till an actual murder occurs to pay much attention. One suspects that today, authorities would investigate such violent outbreaks much sooner.
On the plus side, the murder mystery itself has a fairly dramatic, striking and original set-up, one that seems bafflingly mysterious. It borders on the impossible crime, although it is not quite fully impossible. The section describing the murder and its discovery (Chapter 4) is the best chapter in the book. And Dr. Priestley's explanation solving the mystery (Chapter 22) shows some ingenuity. Even though parts of it seem obvious and easily guessed, they have an overall degree of cleverness.
Aspects of the mystery set-up anticipate a bit, the ambulance sub-plot in Craig Rice's The Wrong Murder (1940).
More negatives: SPOILERS. Some aspects of the mystery puzzle approach cheating. The testimony of the doctor at the inquest is misleading; it reflects very poor quality work on his part. The eye-witnesses to the murder set-up on the train and lorry also do a poor and misleading job with an aspect of their testimony. All of these borderline-unfair aspects make the murder harder to solve.
More SPOILERS. The main mystery puzzle has aspects of the "breakdown of identity" beloved by the Realist School.
The murder mystery (Chapter 4) involves a simple-but-pleasant rural landscape, in its later stages.
There is nothing much wrong or offensive, as far as I can tell, with the novel's depiction of technological research in business. But it seems superficial, with not much interesting detail.
Pinehurst is the name of the decayed, partly shut-up country house where the action takes place.
In the Holmes tales, this approach works well, giving a story drama and color. But it is not so enjoyable in Pinehurst. One possible explanation: making all these details of plot mysterious works well in a 20 page short tale, like the Holmes stories. But stretched out over a full-length novel like Pinehurst, they can seem annoying vague.
SPOILER. This plot starts with a good bit of landscape description, the best in the novel: The arrival of the victim to Pinehurst by boat (start of Chapter 4). Then the mystery begins, with a description of odd equipment in the victim's room (Chapter 7). It is solved soon (Chapter 9). Once again, Rhode shows good ideas involving equipment and devices.
Observation and lines of sight within a landscape, play a role. These become even more central in They Watched by Night.
The 1930 police in this book take drunk driving very seriously. Drunk driving's ability to cause harm is also stressed. Another British mystery writer E.R. Punshon will also briefly show police having negative views on drunk driving in Death Among the Sunbathers (1934) (Chapter 1).
The opening of The Milk-Churn Murder has a topography that recalls Rhode's previous Dead Men at the Folly. Both stories take place on an old, now-bypassed road, that has had most of its traffic diverted to a new, modern roadway. Both novels have a railway, and a railroad repair crew out at the time of the murder. Both novels are set in a rural area in the West of England. Both novels also mention Exeter in Devon as a possible destination for their characters, but neither is set there.
Another mystery puzzle about how a crook gets information about a victim's life will occur in Vegetable Duck.
SPOILER. The disappearing car and its solution anticipate Hugh Penetcost's "The Day the Children Vanished" (1958).
I like the young guy Leonard Trimmer who discovers the body (Chapters 1, 2). He disappears from the story after this, unfortunately: if they made a movie of Dead Men at the Folly, one suspects his role would be expanded. He is riding that favorite form of transportation of the Realist School, a motorcycle. He works for a company involved in trade with Lithuania: trade with Eastern Europe being a recurring theme in Freeman Wills Crofts and Rhode. Crofts included both motorbiking and trade with the Baltics in The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922).
Ronald A. Knox's The Body in the Silo (1933) also includes a rally, much simpler, more impromptu, and involving more upper class characters.
The progress of the drivers through various British cities, also recalls the car chases and maneuvers in R.A.J. Walling's That Dinner at Bardolph's (1927). Those were done for real, however, moving people around Britain as part of the thriller plot, rather than as any sort of rally.
Barzun & Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime signal out The Claverton Mystery for special praise: "The puzzle is sound, the atmosphere menacing in a splendidly gloomy way, and the treatment of spiritualistic seances above reproach". I think their claims about the book's mystery puzzle are dead wrong. The mystery plot seems to me to be 1) painfully simple; and 2) full of specific problems, documented below.
A long list of contemporary writers who praised The Claverton Mystery could be constructed. I am not going to name most of these writers: which would imply some sort of personal attack on their judgment. This article will instead detail what I see as problems with The Claverton Mystery.
The Claverton Mystery lacks anything that resembles a Background. It tells us little about Britain or its society or institutions.
I found the horror elements to be mildly effective, but nothing special. (And no, I don't agree with Barzun & Taylor that the "atmosphere" is "splendid".) Best part: the first seance (second half of Chapter 10). This leads to unexpected developments: always a welcome feature in a novel. Dr. Priestley's analysis of the seance has some good ideas too (Chapter 11).
The Claverton Mystery proposes two solutions to its killing: a false solution, midway through the novel (Chapter 9); and the true solution at the book's end (Chapter 16).
The earlier false solution is simple. But it is also fair and logical, drawing on the medical scientific facts about the crime. It shows a bit of ingenuity. SPOILER. It has weaknesses though: It does not feature an "active" murder, but merely a passive acceptance of an accidental death. This makes it less than a full scale murder plot: the kind of murder plot one expects as the solution in a murder mystery.
The solution at the book's end has problems. SPOILERS. The Claverton Mystery is mainly a "how-done-it", a murder where the main mystery is to explain how the crime was done. The murder method at the end seems plausible. But it also seems inconceivable that it would not have been discovered by the famed pathologist who conducts the autopsy early in the novel (Chapter 6). Sir Alured Faversham is supposed to be one of Britain's top doctors and forensic experts. How could he miss this? His failure to explore this aspect, despite Dr. Priestley's repeated pleadings to look for a murder method, seems unbelievable.
It also seems like a cheat, looking at The Claverton Mystery as a murder puzzle. Just as the poor quality of the doctor's testimony in The Davidson Case bordered on the unfair, so does the pathologist's poor work in The Claverton Mystery seem like an unfair basis for a mystery.
BIG SPOILER. The information about the gelatin capsules (Chapter 1) seems to announce their significance. They made it seem obvious that a capsule had been tampered with.
There are few clues to the identity of the guilty party. SPOILER. The suspect's motive is sound and logical. This is the main clue to the identity of the killer.
First subplot: Two heirs are unexpectedly named in the will. The reasons for their inclusion is a mystery, not explained in the will. I immediately suspected why they are there: it seems like an obvious possibility. However, it takes Dr. Priestley many chapters to tumble to this fact.
Second subplot: SPOILER. There is a marriage clause in the will. Its motivations are mysterious. It strongly suggests some deep dark mystery. However, when its motive is eventually explained, the motive seems inadequate, illogical and harmful to the woman (start of Chapter 13). This subplot doesn't work.
As is frequently the case in British mystery writers of the early 1930's, modernity and changes coming to Britain, are symbolized by the movies: here a new cinema building (Chapter 1). E.R. Punshon's Genius in Murder (1932) praises modernity and the movies, while J.J. Connington's The Sweepstake Murders (1931) condemns them.
In their first brief appearance, Dr. Priestley feels the characters are fiercely hostile to his presence in the mansion. This suggests some hidden, mysterious reason for this hostility. However, as best as I can tell, no such reason appears, in the rest of the book.
Similarly, in the opening Dr. Priestley is shocked by the decayed appearance of his old friend Claverton. This too suggests some hidden mystery about problems haunting Claverton. But no such problems emerge. This hint approaches the dimension of a cheat.
As has been pointed out by reviewers, The Claverton Mystery is unusual in Rhode's work, in that Dr. Priestley is front-and-center through the whole novel, instead of making brief appearances as a consultant to Scotland Yard. Further, we are shown Priestley's thought processes and emotions in detail, throughout the whole novel. In theory, this suggests that The Claverton Mystery should have better characterization of Priestley than other books. In practice, however, I didn't enjoy Priestley's characterization in The Claverton Mystery. I liked him better in Death in the Hop Fields and other works, despite his briefer appearance.
There are pleasant elements of borderline science fiction, in the imaginary, made-up technical details of the manufacturing in Poison for One. These science fiction aspects play no role in the mystery puzzle or solution, however, which are strictly realistic.
The phone call enters the mystery as a ringing bell the secretary says he has overheard. This is an example of the importance of sounds in Rhode.
Rhode develops a Least Likely Person as the identity of the killer. I found this aspect easy to guess.
The how-done-it, about how the murder was committed, seems only moderately clever to me. An incorrect guess by the police inspector, towards the end of Part 2, is actually cleverer than the book's solution at the end. William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa pointed out the numerous evil mechanical devices used in Rhode's solutions. These devices are fair and legitimate. But they tend not to greatly impress me either. The mechanical device proposed by Priestley as the killer's weapon, is fairly close what one suspects most readers will guess, much earlier in the book. It is more detailed, but not all that surprising.
Much of the book is very low key. An entire chapter (Chapter 3) is devoted to the local pub, and its arrangements for handling the big crowds of field workers during harvest time. This has nothing to do with the mystery, and not much to do with the actual hop harvest either. It is an odd look back at how businesses dealt with crowds, way back when. It is not brilliant, but the fact is I don't recall anything like it in other mystery novels, and one has to admit that it is at least "different". There is a further detailed look at the harvesters getting their food (first half of Chapter 5). Most of the characters in these sections are working class. They form a "group portrait" of working class British of the era.
The organizational challenges of hosting field workers in a rural region in Death in the Hop Fields, anticipate the World War II hosting of large scale enterprises in the countryside in They Watched by Night - although They Watched by Night centers on security rather than providing food and drink. More distantly, it evokes a complex event staged by country people themselves in Night Exercise.
The city people in working as migrant harvesters in Death in the Hop Fields are very different from their rural hosts. Similarly, the wartime technical expert workers in They Watched by Night are nerd-like, and drastically different from the traditional British Army. Rhode seems sympathetic to these people with different ways, in both novels.
Both books also look at agriculture, showing food being grown:
SPOILERS. A much better puzzle then briefly emerges. This new puzzle revolves around that R. Austin Freeman subject, the disposal of the corpse. When Dr. Priestley knows how the body was disposed of, he then can directly deduce who did the murder. This solution is simple, but logically sound (Chapter 17).
Had Rhode included only the good parts of Death in the Hop Fields, and left out the padding, he would have had a first rate novella. Instead, these creative sections are embedded in a long book that has many routine episodes.
As R.E. Faust points out in his review at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, They Watched by Night is better in its depiction of war-time Britain, than in its mystery elements. The opening offers a detailed picture of the many security forces operating in a rural British town. They are surprisingly varied.
There are also lively glimpses of a technological project by the British Armed Forces. These are in keeping with Rhodes' and the Realist School's interest in technology. Unfortunately, this material drops out of the novel after the opening. They Watched by Night gets some comedy out of the technicians' drastic contrast in appearance, grooming and attitude from the traditional military types around them. These technicians are clearly what we would today call "nerds", although the book never uses that term, which wasn't invented till decades later. The book also makes clear the technicians' skill, determination and patriotism.
Do Not Disturb (1943) by Helen McCloy suggests that the right-wing politics of rich upper class Americans makes them likely to be Nazi sympathizers and traitors. Rhode doesn't go this far, or make any critique of the British upper classes' politics. But he definitely holds open the possibility that there are Nazi ideologues lurking in Britain's upper classes.
One wonders if British mystery writers associated undercover roles for the police with wartime counter-espionage work. Crofts' Death of a Train also has police taking on undercover assignments in wartime Britain.
Another favorite Rhode subject, fog, gets a lyrical treatment in the description of the night mist (start of Chapter 6).
They Watched by Night is full of a favorite Rhode device, the flashlight. The sleuth solves a small-but-creditable mystery subplot about flashlights (start of Chapter 6).
The night-watchers studying the lights in They Watched by Night also reflect Rhode's fascination with nocturnal labor.
The location where the signaling is taking place is somewhat startling and even a bit surreal (Chapter 13). But is also implausible. SPOILER. The location might well be invisible to the town's main observation posts. But it would be highly visible to neighbors, travelers on nearby roads, etc. These people would have long since raised alarms, spread reports of light, etc. The book does not consider this. Earlier, the sleuth came up with a duller, but far more plausible, potential locale for the signaling (Chapter 5).
A clue to the identity of the traitor, involves the passing on of information, and what people knew and did not know. A differently structured puzzle about the flow of information will occur in Vegetable Duck.
In general, the mystery about the traitor signaling is consistently better than the murder mystery. The signaling plot benefits from vivid description of the sleuth's night-watch activities, an inventive-if-implausible locale for the signaling, and Dr. Priestley's technological ideas about the signaling. These aren't perfect, but they are creditable. By contrast, the murder mystery is second rate.
There is a mystery sub-plot about the (separate) mysterious activities in which Brockhurst and Mr. Pembury are engaged. This has a clever solution (Chapter 13).
One wonders if Brockhurst is in part an autobiographical portrait of the author.
The fire fighters recall similar countryside fire fighters in Death in the Hop Fields.
The simulation of a loss of electric power during the exercise, recalls the mystery based on a farmhouse without electrical power in Death Leaves No Card. However, the electrical simulation in Night Exercise is not involved with the book's mystery plot.
There are some detective developments about a disappearance of a character (Chapter 4, end of Chapter 5, solved in Chapter 9). These broadly parallel the mysterious disappearance of a car in Dead Men at the Folly. The character in Night Exercise was walking along a path; the car in Dead Men at the Folly was on a road: both out in the countryside.
The puzzle in in Dead Men at the Folly is a full-fledged impossible crime. Rhode could easily have made the disappearance in Night Exercise an impossible crime, too - and it would have made a better mystery. But he choose to give a non-impossible alternate explanation (a maze of hedges and ditches through which the character could have wandered off, is mentioned at the end of Chapter 5).
SPOILERS. This alternative explanation shows the Golden Age interest in landscape and architecture. So does the real solution, when it is revealed.
Also a bit unusual: the way that Ledbury's wife and children are briefly and proudly alluded to in the novel (Chapter 8), but never put in an on-stage appearance. If their glowing descriptions are intended as a tribute to Rhode's own family, this would make sense. Rhode would feel comfortable praising them. But he would not want to exploit them by dragging them on stage as characters in the story.
The solution involves another of Rhodes' "murderous devices": something that most readers will guess right away. This particular device is different in detail from those in earlier Rhodes books, a point in its favor. Unfortunately, this gizmo approaches the ridiculous. It can be considered as Camp, or something nearing self-parody for Rhodes. It seems to burlesque that cliche of the British Mystery, "the body in the library".
The gizmo is probably the best part of Death Invades the Meeting, silly if minor fun. It would have been serviceable as a plot device, if Rhodes had used it in a short story, one with better storytelling and a sense of humor.
The letter subplot in Vegetable Duck is comparable in broad terms, to the phone call subplot in Poison for One. Both are ingenious mysteries about means of communication; neither is directly linked to the main murder mysteries in their books.
The puzzle about how the poison was introduced into the food is mildly clever. (It gets solved in the first half of Chapter 12.) As both Nick Fuller and R.E. Faust point out in their reviews at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, Rhode's puzzle and solution are variations on R. Austin Freeman's earlier short story "Rex v. Burnaby". Rhode's variation is enough to make his idea legitimately original, but it is still fairly close to Freeman.
The other puzzle is how the killer could have learned enough about routine in the victim's flat, to have planned the crime. This gets a good explanation (Chapters 21, 22).
SPOILER. This elevator and its use to deliver food also play a role in the mystery plot. This allow the range of possible suspects to be enlarged dramatically. Its use means that the killer was not necessarily in the flat.
In some ways the maid Ellen is the most sympathetic person in the book, hard working and highly observant. But she is also treated as a comic figure, an overwhelming chatterbox. It is a somewhat mixed portrait, of a working class woman.
Too Many Suspects is a poor title: the mystery in the novel actually has only a few suspects! One might conjecture that Too Many Suspects was slapped on the book by a publisher, who hoped to emphasize to potential readers that the book was a murder mystery.
Quite a few mystery lovers seem to prize mysteries highly, that offer formal variants on the standard construction of detective fiction. By contrast, I tend to have mixed feelings about such works. I try to welcome innovation. It certainly takes imagination to create variations on the standard mystery paradigm. Rhode in Death in Harley Street, and other writers who offer such works, deserve credit for new approaches. But it is also easy to overvalue such tales. It is going too far, as some readers do, to automatically regard any work that varies mystery paradigms as a "masterpiece" or "classic".
On the negative side, the puzzle and solution in Death in Harley Street are fairly simple.
But the explanation has an unusual extra idea that is new. SPOILER. The new idea is linked to ruins left over from World War II bombing. This idea is perhaps linked to the interest in architecture in Golden Age mysteries.
But earlier views of these characters are full of anti-Semitism and its stereotypes: